“Based on our small group discussion last week,” I heard a colleague say once, “I started to think a lot about the black student I have in my fifth period. He probably has been so miserable. We haven’t read any black authors in the last quarter. And probably,” she continued, shaking her head, gripped by genuine guilt, “he has just been sitting at his desk feeling totally removed and unwelcome.” In the school where I worked before coming to grad school, and in many other wealthy, well-intentioned, private high schools in the area, comments like this are frequently heard. Progressive education has created such an extreme position that it no longer detects the absurdity—the offense—in a statement like the one made by my colleague. At this point, there is nothing new in what she said, nor anything new in what I have to say about it, yet both will seem radical to those who feel the opposite.
When I began to write this for a presentation I gave at the Association of Graduate Liberal Studies Programs, I worried that it may be too obvious. So I ran it by a few friends. “What’s your topic?” another English teacher asked me. “The tendency in progressive education to think that students in the English classroom can only really, truly relate to authors of their own race, and the idea that such thinking is reductive to both the students and the author,” I told her. “Wait… do people actually think that?” She looked at me, disbelieving. “I mean I’m sure there are educators saying it’s important for students to see themselves reflected in the writers they read, but to really think there is a one-to-one correspondence about meaningful reading between race of student and race of author? Who is arguing that?” Okay, I thought. Maybe it is worth discussing.
Do people actually think that students, both minority and majority, can only relate personally when the author shares their skin color? Yes, some people do. Some of them are teachers, department heads, or directors of diversity programming. I heard this very sentiment expressed and worried over so many times during my work in a small private high school in D.C. I heard it from my colleague when she fretted, so upset with herself, that she hadn’t matched up author race to student race in the last month in her class; I watched nine or ten adults in the group nod along with her. I heard it when a faculty member voiced her utter disdain that people still thought Holden Caulfield, the catcher in the rye himself—that dated, privileged, little white boy—had anything worthwhile to offer anyone in these enlightened times, and certainly to anyone non-white and non-middle class. Such, according to the truly progressive, are the highly limited parameters of meaningful communication from Holden these days.
But there are many more examples of this kind of reductive perspective that haunt the most forward-thinking of halls, and not only halls of English departments, but halls, as we know, of all kinds and levels of academia everywhere. I was a college counselor for a few years after I was an English teacher, and the extremity of focus on race in those halls, without any ability to step back for a moment and question itself, is perhaps worse there than anywhere else. “Let’s have a separate orientation day for students of color,” many colleges (and some high schools) have suggested, and some have implemented. And most commonly heard while perusing stacks of applications: “Well, she’s just a middle-class white girl. What can she really bring?” This is something people really say and really mean; this is something educated adults will give you that sideways look for and even roll their eyes, if you stop to point out that it may be—may be—a bit of a preemptive way to judge a person’s life.
None of this is to say that race cannot be tied to other factors and experiences in a person’s life. It is one part of who we all are. But it is often human nature to swing from one extreme to the other, and we are currently mired in the other extreme. The opposite of externally imposed separation, it seems, is self-imposed separation. We have lost sight of that middle ground of a deeply woven and textured integration. In our well-meaning attempts to find common ground, we have lost it and our way to it. If we are really being honest with ourselves, we have actually moved into an ever-widening quest for separated spaces. We (in the wealthy, private, liberal high schools) are inadvertently teaching our students to make assumptions about everyone based on what they see. “Ok, I know,” I’ve heard students say about each other in between classes, “she’s black and she’s probably had a really hard life.” How heinously demeaning. I don’t need to explain the flagrant blindness in a statement like that, but this is the lesson that students are learning from our best efforts at teaching compassion. They are learning separation.
If we are going to do “the work”—as I often hear diversity programming called–why not try to teach ourselves to make the safest assumption possible in meeting someone new and thinking first of all: “This person might have so many things in common with me.” Better still: “I know nothing about this person—nothing—until I know them.” But if this is beyond our grasp, let us immediately assume that we share many important commonalities until proven otherwise. This may sound naive, though I’m not sure why. In diversity work, there is much exhortation toward the checking of premises and checking of privilege. Perhaps better would be to actively work our thoughts away from imagined barriers and toward imagined common ground. If we must assume something prior to knowing a person, why not assume our shared humanity?
In my third year of teaching, I worked at a very small high school in Washington, D.C., with a disproportionately large number of international students. Out of about 50 students in the high school, about 10 were from countries outside the U.S., and almost all of those were in my Introduction to Literature class that year. This included two boys from Tajikistan and two girls and a boy from Vietnam—all five of whom had very recently come to the U.S. and were, at that point, barely speaking English. They were taking an ESL (English as a Second Language) class in conjunction with my Intro to Lit. The rest of the class was a racially diverse group of American students, including black and Hispanic, some from D.C. with parents from D.C., some first-generation students with parents from Eritrea. The global influence of places far and wide in that tiny room was astonishing. We read Romeo and Juliet and parts of The Odyssey, which the kids took in stride (and even asked if there was a toy pig somewhere, for use in their performance of the latter). But when we arrived at Catcher in the Rye, there was absolute magic.
I have never seen a room of high school students so transfixed every day by the alchemy taking place in the pages. You could almost see their hearts on their faces. They had never read a book quite like this—of course no one will ever read a book quite like this—that spoke to their very own experience of the world in that moment in such a personal way. (And to those who would say Catcher is dated—I would suggest another good, hard look past the slang and into the miracles of relationship, symbols, and salvation that Salinger is pulling off. Something timeless cannot be dated.) Every day, these students came in with stunning insights and sincere concern for Holden, ready to digest what was a very difficult English text for some of them at that point, and to make something beautiful together out of it. I was the fortunate witness of a masterful literary resonance at work on these readers, even when they did not yet understand its mechanisms of operation.
The insights abounded. One student, black and at the school on financial aid (as far away as possible from the white privilege of Holden, some would have us believe) found a deep connection with the book. He said thoughtfully that Holden could have fared better if he had some form of art to carry him through adolescence. This student was a break dancer, and it was dancing, he said, that was carrying him and at least one kind of innocence intact from childhood to adulthood. On another day, the boy from Vietnam wrote a letter to Holden, offering to be the kind of friend for the protagonist that Holden had been for him. And when we reached Salinger’s poignantly ironic closing, warning to never “tell anybody anything; if you do, you’ll start missing everybody,” the boy from Tajikistan, an immediately popular student and a devout Muslim, walked into class and threw his book on the desk. “Ms. Rozenman,” he said, in a still thick accent, “I need your help. I started crying when I read the last sentence, but I don’t know why. It made me cry and I need you to explain me why.” That has to be my favorite reaction to a piece of literature, ever.
It was incredibly moving to be with that class and watch firsthand the power of literature do what it is meant to do, transforming all kinds of boundaries, breaking down all kinds of imagined walls. At the end of the year, one of the girls from Vietnam asked me if there were any other books anywhere “like Catcher in the Rye?” That question led me to create the Coming of Age Lit class I taught the next year, because that’s what they were really asking for: books about the excruciating, exquisite movement of growing up, as human beings tend to do.
A similar thing happened the next year, in a World Lit course at the same school. This time the class was nine girls: one white and eight black. About half were from D.C.; the other half from or with parents from Ethiopia or Eritrea. We read many works in that class, including Siddhartha, Things Fall Apart, Cry, the Beloved Country, short stories by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and a too-brief unit on Daoism. But something strange happened. Of all the stories we read that year, their collective favorite by far was All Quiet on the Western Front. Yes, the World War I novel written from the perspective of a young German soldier. My favorite memory from that class was Destinee literally bouncing in each day, eager to talk about Paul. “I’m worried about Paul,” she’d sometimes say on her way out, thinking about the homework ahead. “I don’t know what’s coming, and I’m not sure he can handle it!” There was, again, something in that delicate and still fresh writing that allowed them to trade worlds with each other. As the girls discussed Paul every day like a friend, they poured themselves into themes of adolescence enjoyed and lost, the horrors of war, the bonds of and gulfs between family and friends. They asked me to interview my grandfather, a World War II vet, over winter break and bring back stories.
Let me be clear: none of the gratification in this was because the students were black and the protagonist (and author) were white. The fact did not occur to me then. Any teacher who felt the level of personal engagement with a text that Destinee was bringing to that class every day would have been thrilled. It was only later, after hearing the increasingly radical progressive—and separatist—theories in the humanities that these experiences began to replay themselves in my mind in this light.
Many more such examples come to mind. In my first year of teaching at a large public school in Fairfax County, my predominantly white tenth-grade class read many works, from Shakespeare to Dickens. But they were awed by Achebe. Things Fall Apart proved a quietly compelling, a moving and unsettling experience for them. Felix, a white, actively Christian student who had the privilege of homeschooling before coming to the school to play baseball, sat hushed at the end of Things Fall Apart. “What else did Achebe write?” He asked me. “I mean you don’t… you don’t write this”—waving his book up and down in a gesture that said “HOW DID THE PIECES OF THIS DO THIS TO ME”—“you don’t write Things Fall Apart and then not write anything else, right?” His enchantment proved a love with staying power. His comparisons the rest of the year came back against the measure of Achebe’s masterpiece. When we arrived at Merchant of Venice, Felix nodded appreciatively but allowed only: “I mean, it’s no Things Fall Apart.”
It still seems strange that I would need to use any of these as examples to prove something. It would be strange if any of these moments were not the case. This is what literature is; this is exactly what literature is for. To speak to all of us humans, across time, across place, across race, across poverty and wealth, across religion. There is nothing earth-shattering in what I am saying. But I wish I could say this to my colleague who did a disservice to her student in thinking he could not relate to white authors, to non-minority authors. I wish I could say it to the Multicultural Coordinator at that school, who required that discussion in the first place. I wish I could say it without the obvious caveat: this is not to say, of course, that authors of all races don’t need to be represented in curriculum—they do—and that their representation can be meaningful both for minority and majority students. It is quite simply a reminder against extremes, and one particular extreme that is doing much more damage than healing. I was one of a handful of Jewish students in my two thousand-student public high school. I never once felt put out or unwelcome by, or even ever paused to think about, the near total lack of Jewish authors in our curriculum.
Why should I? Why even consider that, when every human story we read was so good? In fact, I much preferred Toni Morrison to Saul Bellow (sorry, Mr. Bellow). And I would have been horrified if someone had suggested a “separate orientation day for Jews.” It is a favorite slogan of diversity work to “speak your truth,” as we should all do, and we may be, as George Orwell put it, “sunk to such a depth that restatement of the obvious is our first duty.” I hope that what I leave you with is a deeply felt, and not naive, call to first and always look to find our shared, foundational experiences and past our differences, real or imagined; an invitation to discuss and ponder further; and a love letter to the ways that literature helps us do all of this, to the way it makes even difficult things joyful in their shared experience. If we call it literature, then it is for human beings—every single one of us.
Jordi Rozenman recently earned a master’s degree from St. John’s College in their Great Books curriculum, and is currently looking forward to receiving her yoga teacher certification. She is deeply grateful to the students and texts that informed this essay, which was first presented at the national conference of the Association of Graduate Liberal Studies Programs. Find more of her work at Reach and Reason.